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Originally published Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'American Rose': Baring the dark side of the dazzling life of Gypsy Rose Lee

Karen Abbott's biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque queen whose childhood was spent in West Seattle, shows the dark side of a dazzling life. Abbott discusses her book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, at the Oddfellows Building.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Karen Abbott

The author of "American Rose" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, Oddfellows Building, West Hall, 915 E. Pine St., Seattle; $5 (206-624-6600 or Presented by the Elliott Bay Book Co. and Miss Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque.

She spent her early years in a dingy, four-room, clapboard house on Seattle's Southwest Frontenac Street, later drifting from a Rainier Avenue apartment to her grandparents' home in West Seattle — a plain and vulnerable girl seeking acceptance amid the twisted and dangerous women she called family.

As a child, Rose Louise Hovick was as awkward as her younger sister, June, was talented. With "Baby June" in the starring role, they played Seattle's lodge halls, until finally their mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, stuffed the girls and all their possessions into the car and left Seattle on a quest to launch her children in vaudeville.

It was the end of childhood and the beginning of numerous horrific adventures. Years later, with vaudeville on the decline, Rose Louise would find stardom with the Minsky Brother's Republic Theater in New York as burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy Rose Lee was no ordinary burlesque star. She became known for revealing very little as the clothing fell away, and presented her act with such humor she performed at high-society events. When she tried to move from burlesque to movies, using her name Rose Louise Hovick, she was far less successful. An affair with director Otto Preminger resulted in her only child, a son, Erik Preminger. She wrote an unsuccessful novel and her own very successful memoir, "Gypsy," on which the Broadway play of the same name was based.

There have been other books written about Gypsy, and the musical was one of Broadway's most enduring shows. But in "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, the Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee" (Random House, 426 pp., $26), Karen Abbott manages to spin a compelling tale that reveals a very different story behind "Baby June" and "Madame Rose," as well as a darker side of Gypsy herself. The book, as the title suggests, also is a sad revelation of Depression-era life for poor women who, having no other options, turned to selling themselves as strippers or prostitutes in the one line of employment that was always available.

Abbott was likely the last journalist to interview actress June Havoc (her stage name as an adult) before her death in March 2010. Abbott tells us how Baby June began performing at 2, and although her tiny feet were still growing, danced en pointe in toe shoes; how she supported her family by dancing even as she was ill with all sorts of childhood diseases.

Her mother's ruthless ambition and the demanding two-show-a-day performance schedule, with more on the weekends, and traveling to cities from coast to coast, prevented the girls from ever being enrolled in school.

Whether it was starving her children, putting them at risk of harm, never providing them with a home or security, or even knowing how old they actually were — Rose Thompson Hovick will never be remembered as anyone's mother of the year.

In one city, she murdered a man. In the middle of the night, her daughters had to help dig a grave to hide the body. Later in New York, she likely murdered again.

After years of terror and poverty, June ran away at 13 and married, a relationship that quickly ended. She found herself entering dance marathons because they provided food.

In the meantime, Rose Louise found the only way to avoid starving was to enter the lucrative world of burlesque and leave behind the person she once was.

It was a time when female workers from all walks of life made similar decisions and applied at burlesque houses by the thousands.

"Burlesque ... had its own language and rules, an accidental subculture forged by people who never intended to dwell there," Abbott writes.

For Gypsy Rose Lee, it was a language that came easily, and Abbott skillfully gives us the behind-the-scenes story to tell us why.

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